The COVID-19 pandemic may have lasted longer than any of us might have imagined at the outset. But there's one particular group that's having trouble seeing that an end is in sight: People with "long COVID," a syndrome of symptoms that last long after the coronavirus has cleared the body. The condition is still poorly understood, although the National Institutes of Health is spending $470 million to figure it out. Here are some potential early signs of long COVID, which may appear even before you're recovered from the coronavirus. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You May Have Already Had COVID.
Early Signs of Long COVID
Your first sign of long COVID may be one of three that are frequently reported. "The most common symptoms of people with COVID-19 long haulers are very bad fatigue, muscle weakness, and brain fog," says Chaitanya Mandapakala, MD, a pulmonologist, ICU doctor, principal investigator for COVID-19 clinical trials and medical director of chronic lung diseases at St. Elizabeth Healthcare.
Overall, long-haulers complain they're not able to do things they could before. "Before getting COVID, they were able to function in a certain way or get their job done at work or be able to do a certain kind of exercise, and now they are not able to do any of that," he says.
One study by the Therapies for Long Covid (TLC) study group at the University of Birmingham, published in July, found that people who experienced certain symptoms during their bout with COVID—like shortness of breath, chest pain, or abnormal heart sounds—or had comorbidities like asthma, had a higher risk of developing long-lasting symptoms. People who experienced five or more symptoms in their first week of having the coronavirus also seemed to have a higher risk of long COVID.
Other Symptoms of Long COVID
Long COVID is a sprawling syndrome; one large study identified nearly 200 potential symptoms. According to Mandapakala, other common symptoms of long COVID can include:
Shortness of breath
"In some severe cases, patients end up needing oxygen," he says.
How Common Is Long COVID?
This is difficult to determine. Long COVID is being studied by scientists in real time, and they're learning about it as they go. Additionally, there's no formal definition for the condition. That said, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 1 in 3 people who contract the coronavirus will end up having symptoms that last for longer than a month.
What Causes Long COVID?
That's unclear and a matter of scientific conjecture at this point. One theory is that COVID-19 causes the immune system to go into overdrive, creating certain symptoms or causing the body to attack itself. Another is that COVID may create inflammation in certain parts of the body (like the brain and muscles), leading to issues like fatigue and muscle aches. Still another is that the virus may still be present in the body, causing physical problems.
"Most likely it's more than just one condition," said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, this week."The really troubling aspects of this terrible pandemic might be the lingering of this long-tail effect on people."
How to Stay Safe Out There
Follow the fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear an N95 face mask, don't travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don't go indoors with people you're not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.